May 11, 2009
The Professor was one of a kind
By Michael Lewis
It's tough enough writing an obituary. It is indescribable when you have to write about someone you not only knew well, but admired and had affection for.
That's what Prof. Julio Mazzei did to everybody.
How could anyone dislike such a vibrant person as the Professor, who could spin some stories -- great and small -- and could bring a smile to your face or a laugh to your belly.
While the general public saw this folksy man with wit and humor, behind the scenes he was a man with great intelligence and unique vision.
I got to know the Professor covering the Cosmos from afar from Rochester, N.Y., but had plenty of interaction because he was Pele's translator during his North American Soccer League days.
As it turned out, my relationship with the Professor -- that's what everyone called him -- no Julio or Mazzei -- didn't really get going until after Pele's playing days.
In 1987, I had the opportunity to cover the Pele Cup, a youth tournament in Brazil, for two weeks. I got one of the great treks of a lifetime (which is something for me to say, considering I have been around the world and then some).
I mentioned to him that I wanted to visit Belo Horizonte to see the stadium where the U.S. pulled off one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history (ask England about the 1950 competition in Brazil).
So, guess what he did? Without telling me, he made arrangements for the journalists to take a special side trip to Belo Horizonte. But he also had the foresight to fly in Walter Bahr and Harry Keough, two U.S. starters, and former English international Wilf Mannion. It made for one of the most memorable days of my soccer life.
Our paths crossed many more times.
While researching a project, I got an opportunity to see a more serious side of the Professor as he talked about his start as a conditioning coach with Palmeiras soccer club in 1960.
He met with the team -- players, coaches and owners as he tried to convince them why it was important to have a conditioning coach.
I'll let the Professor take it from here:
"I told them why it was important to have a conditioning coach because the only [thing] you have in their this profession is your body. If you don't take care of your body, you're going to be in trouble.
"Four things can happen to you:
"First, you can use your natural skills much more efficiently.
"Second, you're going to get less injuries if you are fit to face some situations.
"Third, if you get injured, your recovery is going to be less if you're fit.
"Fourth, it is the money. If you make $100 per game, if you take 10 games away from your injury, you are losing $1,000 dollars.
"That is the conversation they understand.
"One half hour later, i received a standing ovation. That was my beginning."
The 1958 Brazilian National Team had a conditioning coach and it went on to win the World Cup.
"A conditioning coach, the media could not understand," Mazzei said. "I created a new terminology on how to condition the people."
Mazzei noted that the 1962 world championship Brazilian side had a trainer, but the powers that be decided one wasn't needed for the 1966 World Cup in England.
"Sixty-six was a disaster," he said.
Mazzei went on to have a career, first at Palmeiras through 1964 before eventually joining the National Team and starting a lifelong bond with Pele.
I have scoured the wires looking for a comment from Pele about the Professor. As I write this unfortunately, I have not found any. If I am fortunate to find one, I'll retro-edit it into his obit.
Unfortunately, I never got an opportunity to say good-bye to the Professor before he moved back to Santos, Brazil. He has lived there for a good decade, and had suffered from Alzheimer's for the past nine years.
So, I guess I'll have to do it publicly.
Goodbye, Professor. You were one of a kind.
Michael Lewis would like to hear from you. If you have a comment, drop him a line at email.